Worshippers at Sunday’s 8 a.m. service at Nations Ford Community Church were greeted by an usher holding out a box of Kleenex. Inside the sanctuary, photos of the senior pastor flashed on big screens as members hugged and wept.
Bishop Phillip Davis, founder and senior pastor of their Charlotte church, was found dead Saturday inside his Union County home. He was the victim of an accidental gunshot wound, the Union County Sheriff’s Office said Sunday.
Davis, 62, was apparently cleaning his pistol at his home in Weddington when it accidentally fired, striking him in the chest, the sheriff’s office said in a statement. He had invited his son to go to a firing range with him later that day.
Cynthia Davis, his wife of more than 40 years, called 911 shortly after 1 p.m. Saturday and said she found him collapsed at his desk. She attempted to administer CPR.
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“The investigation revealed no signs of foul play, and the evidence confirms this was in fact an accidental death,” the sheriff’s office said in the statement.
At Nations Ford, a Southern Baptist congregation that is predominantly African-American, Davis had worked alongside his wife, a pastor who focused on community services. They have three grown children and three grandchildren.
“Today is a very sad day for us here at Nations Ford Community Church,” church spokeswoman Jacinda Garabito told reporters. “It’s a shock to us. This morning was supposed to be a huge day of celebration for us.”
Sunday was to have been the culmination of the church’s Founders’ Week, celebrating Davis’ establishment of the congregation 36 years ago. Last week, the church paid tribute to Cynthia Davis, as well as marking the couple’s 42nd wedding anniversary and Phillip Davis’ birthday.
The Davis family remained at home Sunday and did not attend the 8 a.m. service, Garabito said. The church’s elders visited the home after the shooting to console the family, she said.
The bishop’s widow, Garabito said, is “holding up as well as she possibly can. We’re praying for her and their three children.”
The Davises’ son, R.J., is pastor at the church’s Ballantyne campus.
The church usually broadcasts its services live but said it was not doing so Sunday. And the 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. services were cut short, with no preaching. Instead, the congregation was invited to grieve and pray.
“The focus today is: Bishop Davis’ legacy lives on,” Garabito said. “Today it’s OK to grieve. This is something that is hard for all of us.”
Reporters were asked not to go into the sanctuary or to interview members.
“Bishop Davis is an amazing leader here,” Garabito said. “He’s really like a father figure to us all. … If you needed him, he was a phone call away.”
In recent weeks, Davis headed up several community conversations before the opening of the trial of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick. Kerrick was charged in the death of an unarmed African-American man, Jonathan Ferrell, 24, who was shot 10 times.
On July 12, Davis spoke about the upcoming trial during a unity rally at Freedom Park. The “Arms Around Charlotte” event was a call for peace and a move to head off the sort of violent protests that have occurred around the country in response to unarmed black men being fatally shot by white officers. The event was hosted by members of the church with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and the North Carolina Local Barbers Association.
After a mistrial was declared in the Kerrick case, Davis was among the community activists who called for peaceful marches as well as a revision of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police’s use-of-force policy and Mecklenburg County’s jury selection process.
Bishop Claude Alexander of The Park Church lauded Davis on Sunday for his preaching, leadership and example. “His most recent effort to provide leadership … to effect racial reconciliation among clergy and churches,” Alexander said, “is but another example of a heart sensitive to the heart of God.”
In a statement Sunday, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte described Davis as a friend and ministry partner for 30 years.
“He worked hard to demonstrate the love of Christ to those in need and was passionate regarding racial reconciliation,” Pittenger wrote.
The projects Davis and the congressman worked on together included the launch of the Male Leadership Academy, a Christian school at Nations Ford Community Church for boys in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“I came from an all-boys environment in school and saw that I needed that discipline,” Davis, who attended Catholic schools in his native Cincinnati, told Qcitymetro in 2012. “(I) saw that I needed that discipline. I needed that structure. I needed someone who understood the uniqueness of how males learn and are taught.”
Nations Ford Community Church began as Nations Ford Baptist Church. Unlike most black Baptist churches, it is affiliated with the mostly white Southern Baptist Convention. In 1996, Davis was elected first vice president of the conservative Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
In 2012, he joined other Southern Baptist pastors in preaching for passage of the state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which North Carolina voters approved by a landslide. Davis expressed disappointment in 2013 after two U.S. Supreme Court rulings upholding the rights of same-sex couples. “I will continue praying for our nation,” he said.
Davis received a bachelor of science degree in business from Xavier University in Cincinnati, and his master’s of ministry and doctor of divinity degrees from the Carolina School of Theology. He was the author of two books, “The Vision Casting Congregation” and “The Father Force.”
In 1996, Davis told the Observer that he had long resisted others’ suggestions that he go into the clergy. He started out as a salesman and envisioned a long and successful climb up the corporate ladder. He even promised his wife he’d become a millionnaire.
But in 1978, their son, R.J., then 2, fell mysteriously ill one day. Davis interpreted the drama surrounding his son’s sickness and recovery as a life-changing event and as a call from God to become a preacher.
Just before R.J. turned 3, Davis delivered his first sermon. Not only that: R.J. followed his father’s footsteps into the ministry.
Nations Ford Community Church plans a public vigil for Bishop Phillip Davis at 7 p.m. Monday at the church’s main campus, 5910 Nations Ford Road.